Youth and political protest in South Africa

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In this blog, Hannah Dawson draws upon her research on political protest in Zandspruit informal settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg during 2011, to provide insight into the lives of a number of youth who participated in protests. This work draws out some of the key features of the changing nature of political action among youth and its significance for politics and society in South Africa. Hannah is a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford. Her current research explores how young men conceive of respected adulthood in a context of mass unemployment. A fuller version of this article appears in the Journal of Southern African Studies. All views expressed are the author’s own.

The public discourse on youth politics in South Africa tends to concentrate on the activities of the youth wings of political parties, thus limiting analyses of politics to formal organisations. Contemporary youth politics therefore often remains in the shadow of its anti-apartheid predecessor with youth viewed either as politically passive and disengaged, or as a dangerous group engaged in short-sighted radicalism.

The central role of young people in the widespread, militant, local, political protests in poor townships and shack settlements since the mid-2000s has created fears of a youth–led rebellion. In practice, however, we need a far wider framework to understand and conceptualise youth political activity.

Young people in protests are portrayed as militant, angry, disillusioned and available for direct action; what some have called a ‘ticking time bomb’. In South Africa, references are made to the ‘Malemisation’ of the country’s youth, owing to the angry and impulsive utterances by Julius Malema – former president of the ANC Youth League and leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters – which espouse the concerns of the young, poor, disenfranchised and unemployed.

Despite a growing body of scholarly work on unrest in South Africa there is a significant absence of research that captures the role of youth in these uprisings, from the perspective of young people themselves. My research highlights the different clusters of actors involved in demonstrations who had different and often shifting agendas and motivations for participation. For the purposes of analysis they have been termed the leaders, protestors and brokers. Here, I focus on the latter.

Brokers were young unemployed men in the informal settlement, who worked very closely with protest leaders but remained distinct from them. They played an important role in the unrest that has often been overlooked in previous studies. This involved attending meetings, door-to-door visits and mobilising residents for protest action. Their work centred on street corners. It was in these spaces of everyday politics that complex motivations for protest and the opportunities they provided were explored. Here, young men could voice personal frustrations and dreams but also engage in social critique, which was dominated by lively debates on local politics and the failings of the state. Street-corners were also a vantage point from which those gathered – known as ‘Ikasi management’ – could watch who came and went, who had access to what, and how local power and access to resources were distributed in the informal settlement. Through their everyday work, brokers gained an intimate knowledge of local landscapes of power, as well as the capability to shape those local landscapes, or insert themselves within them.

It is here on the street corner that a politics of waiting emerged, which both confined and politicised young people’s engagement with the state. The politics of waiting was a form of engagement that sprung from being caught between the hope fostered by promises of better life during the transition and the frustration that these promises were yet to be realized; the space between youth aspirations and their everyday reality.  It was a politics that emerged from a young man’s inability to attain markers of adulthood and respectability, and a collective impatience at the state’s inability or unwillingness to deliver adequate services and housing. It was here, in the place of invariable waiting, that narratives emerged to explain the absence of the state and differential access to state resources. These explanations, bound up with rumours and accusations, formed the foundation for young people’s involvement in political unrest.

Many of the youth in Zandspruit were disillusioned with the possibilities of conventional political action and, in particular, with their elected leaders. This disenchantment, I argue, did not deter young people’s involvement in unrest. Instead, it spurred it on. Involvement in protests represented both an assertion of political power and a disruption of the political order, creating brokerage opportunities to realign and reposition oneself in local patron-client relationships with the possibility of accessing state resources.

The brokers’ political orientations appear contradictory. While on one hand youth in Zandspruit sought to challenge the local state and the legitimacy of the ANC, on the other hand they made claims on the local state and engaged in a strategy of political navigation in the hope of accessing jobs and other local favors.

Youth’s everyday politics have largely been overlooked, misunderstood or dismissed in contemporary South Africa but my research demonstrates that young people are astute readers of the political process. They are not passive or disengaged. Instead, they are actively engaged in strategies to resist, navigate and transform their own lives and a broader social reality.

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